At Eternity's Gate
Updated: Feb 7, 2020
Most biographies of artists try to provide insight into their work by exploring their life. That can be effective with a singer or actor, someone whose creative process can be easily visualized. That is difficult with a writer or painter. It is hard to make something internal exciting on-screen. The result is usually an effort to explain their legacy using their experiences. That is not the case with At Eternity’s Gate, a movie centered on Vincent van Gogh that is less a biopic and more a psychological profile of a tortured artist. It is about his art, why he created it and what it meant to him. You will not learn much about his life from it, but it is an at times fascinating attempt to truly understand the art and what drove the man to paint it.
At Eternity’s Gate (102 minutes without the end credits) shows van Gogh during his most prolific period, beginning when he left Paris for Arles in the south of France in 1888. It focuses on his mental state and how painting helped him survive himself. Director/co-writer/co-editor Julian Schnabel is in no rush to tell a story. The progression of events are not particularly significant here. He is more interested in getting to know his subject on a deeper level. He is not always successful but, when his film works, it can be intensely thought-provoking.
Willem Dafoe stars as van Gogh. Dafoe is currently 26 years older than van Gogh was when he died, but that hardly matters. He captures the weariness of a man for whom every second not spent painting is a lonely struggle. When he is in nature looking for inspiration, or at work, he is at peace. Otherwise, he is in deep emotional pain. Schnabel points out this juxtaposition and how it defined van Gogh as a person. Since it takes place almost entirely in the moment, Dafoe must suggest the genius and the turmoil existing in tandem. It is a very good performance, one that completely reveals At Eternity’s Gate’s idea of Vincent van Gogh even though the movie dramatizes so little of his life (Dafoe has been nominated for a Golden Globe for the role).
The only two people who Vincent has a meaningful relationship with are his brother, Theo, and fellow painter Paul Gauguin. Theo, played with compassion by Rupert Friend, supports Vincent emotionally and financially. Theo’s job is selling paintings but, unfortunately, he is unable to sell his brother’s. Instead, he is constantly sending money. Their talks are mainly about Vincent’s needs. His conversations with Gauguin are much more complex. The great Oscar Isaac plays Gauguin as self-involved, yet very interested in Vincent, who seems to be one of the few people he can stand. They talk a lot about their theories’ of art. Though I have little knowledge of painting, I found those scenes to be captivating.
Schnabel takes a meditative approach to the material, both visually and in terms of pace. There are lengthy shots, many of them close-ups, of van Gogh in thought. All of the characters are filmed in an intimate way. It is like At Eternity’s Gate is painting a moving portrait in an ode to its subject.
This is not an easy movie to watch. Viewers need to actively engage with it. It does not do the work for you. That could certainly be off-putting for some people, especially those hoping for a traditional biopic. However, if you are able to get on its wavelength, it can be very rewarding. It examines the passion of an artist in an intriguing way. This is an art film in more ways than one.
4 out of 5
Willem Dafoe as Vincent van Gogh
Rupert Friend as Theo van Gogh
Oscar Isaac as Paul Gauguin
Mathieu Amalric as Dr. Paul Gachet
Mads Mikkelsen as The Priest
Emmanuelle Seigner as Madame Ginoux
Vincent Perez as The Director
Directed by Julian Schnabel
Written by Jean-Claude Carrière, Louise Kugelberg and Julian Schnabel